How Ownership Patterns Threaten Press Freedom

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Over the past decade, global press freedom has experienced an alarming downward spiral. According to a report released last week by Freedom House, only 14 percent of the world’s population—one in seven people—live in societies in which there is honest coverage of civic affairs, journalists can work without fear of repression or attack, and state interference is minimal. In far too many countries today, the media present the government’s version of events while ignoring, distorting, or trivializing alternative views. And even in more pluralistic environments, news coverage is frequently polarized between competing factions, with no attempt at fairness or accuracy.

It is especially troubling that despite the rapid multiplication of new information sources and technologies for news delivery, the trends toward a more restricted and less ethical press are gaining ground year by year.

The reasons for the worrying state of press freedom are complex. But one of the most important, if least appreciated, factors is a pattern of media ownership that contributes to biased, unprofessional, and in extreme cases propagandistic journalism.

The best known and most dangerous ownership model can be found in countries like Russia and Venezuela. In these settings, the most important outlets are dominated by a combination of state agencies, businesses tied to the state, and private-sector cronies of the political leadership. In Russia, the state owns, either directly or through proxies, virtually all national broadcast networks, important national newspapers, and national news agencies. It also controls many of the regional and local newspapers and periodicals across the vast country.

At its worst, such a system enables the regime to develop a centralized information strategy that amounts to a modern form of propaganda, whereby all important media are speaking with a similar vocabulary, demonizing the same enemies, and presenting the same arguments in support of the leadership’s actions. But this propaganda—informed by the practices and techniques of commercial media, and enriched by an illusion of pluralism—is far more persuasive than were the stale and repetitive methods of the past.

A second pattern involves media owners operating in highly volatile environments, who prioritize physical safety or political allegiances over the principles of editorial independence. On one level we see examples of this in countries like Mexico, where drug traffickers and corrupt officials often use death threats and coercion to determine not simply how an issue is to be covered, but whether entire topics will be dealt with at all. Another variation is evident in Egypt, where the media chiefs who have survived the political turmoil of recent years now compete with one another to display the most fawning loyalty to the current regime. Outlets positioned on the other side of the political divide were equally biased, but most have been forcibly closed.

A third ownership model consists of conglomerates that control both media and nonmedia enterprises. Unlike traditional media companies, many of them family owned, these sprawling operations often have no principled commitment to news coverage, viewing their media assets as just another profit-generating subsidiary, or perhaps as tools for self-promotion. These businesses are especially vulnerable to economic pressure from the political leadership. A prime example of this phenomenon can be found in Turkey, where press freedom is on the decline despite an impressive number of newspapers, television stations, and other outlets. Ownership of these many outlets is in fact highly concentrated, with a few major holding companies subtly pressing editors and journalists to refrain from coverage that could harm their broader business interests, including criticism of the government or potential advertisers. The state of press freedom in Turkey has declined to the point where the latest Freedom House report describes its media environment as Not Free.

There are also worrying signs in democratic societies where legal protections for journalists are strong and overt political intrusion is uncommon. In the United States, television news is dominated by the conglomerate model. At the same time, there has been an explosion of internet media start-ups, polemical blog sites, and highly opinionated talk-radio shows. The result is a two-tiered, and increasingly unequal, information culture. For a narrow elite who have the time and expertise, the market offers an unprecedented variety of high-quality news sources. For the rest, what passes for journalism is often little more than shrill polemics or tabloid sensationalism.

There are even problems in the Netherlands, which ranked highest in the Freedom House report this year. Local and regional media are barely able to survive due to the shifting economic environment, while laws on the protection of whistle-blowers and journalists’ sources are in need of reform.

To be sure, in the democratic world there is a recognition that media freedom conditions are under pressure, and many projects are under way to cope with the problem, ranging from legislative proposals to new business models designed to make high-quality journalism financially sustainable in the new media age.

Unfortunately, in the world’s authoritarian environments, the space for self-reflection and critical commentary is steadily shrinking. Dmitriy Kiselyov, a chief information strategist for the Russian government, recently wondered aloud why the word “propaganda” has such negative connotations among democracies. That someone of Kiselyov’s influence would defend the concept of state propaganda, decades after Goebbels and Stalin departed the scene, is indicative of the challenge confronting freedom of expression and honest journalism today.

Leon Willems is director of Free Press Unlimited. Arch Puddington is vice president for research at Freedom House.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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